Bay foundation criticizes county for sewage spill

Broken pump allows 6 million gallons into Gunpowder Falls

May 01, 2002|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

One of the state's largest environmental groups, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, lashed out at Baltimore County yesterday over the 6 million-gallon sewage spill into Gunpowder Falls that began Sunday.

Not only should people be fearful of contact with coliform and E. coli bacteria, but such spills put five to six times more nitrogen into the water than does treated sewage, a group official said.

Theresa Pierno, executive director of the Maryland chapter, called the spill "enormous" for a waterway the size of the Gunpowder Falls. At the spot where the spill occurred, the river is about 30 feet wide and a foot deep.

The bacteria are known to contaminate fish, and too much nitrogen can lead to a loss of oxygen in the water. Low oxygen levels could delay the stream's recovery, Pierno said.

"Here we are working to reduce nitrogen in the bay and here are all these sewage spills," Pierno said. "It's a problem that keeps on occurring."

Dr. David Pierce, supervisor of the state microbiology lab, said, "I can't think of a spill that has been as big as this. We're going to be following this one for a long time."

However, a representative from a second environmental group, Save Our Streams, said yesterday that she was not as concerned about the spill, which was caused by broken pumps.

"It's not a situation that happens regularly," said Sue Fothergill, who recently led a cleanup of the state park along the stream. "This is a one-time occurrence; this is not a regularly leaking pipe."

A county environmental official said yesterday that he hopes rain will help dilute the sewage before it gets downstream to the Gunpowder and Bird rivers and Chesapeake Bay.

"Any sewage spill is detrimental to the environment," said Bill Clarke, program manager for the county Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management. "But the environment has an amazing ability to cleanse itself."

County workers waded into Gunpowder Falls yesterday to collect water samples and survey the damage caused by the 20-hour spill.

The water samples will be sent to the state Department of Hygiene and Mental Health to be tested for bacteria.

The sewage spill began Sunday and lasted into Monday morning. The sewage was diverted into the Gunpowder Falls after pumps broke at the county's Perry Hall sewage pumping station, one of three stations that push sewage to the Back River Sewage Treatment Plant near Essex.

County officials immediately posted signs along Gunpowder Falls warning against contact with the water until further notice. They also urged that any fish caught in the waters between Perry Hall and Bird River since Sunday be thrown away.

County public works officials said yesterday that they have found no cause for the breakdown but believe an object may have entered the sewage system and damaged a pump.

Neither the state Department of the Environment nor the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have announced plans to investigate the spill.

The incident continued to alarm those who use the stream and adjoining rivers for recreation and sport.

Roger Fitzgerald of Hampstead was windsurfing on the Gunpowder River on Sunday when a park ranger chased him out of the water.

"Gunpowder Falls State Park was just written up as a beautiful place," Fitzgerald said. "But if you don't have the water, you lose the luster."

John Corcoran of Baltimore caught 30 to 35 white perch in Gunpowder Falls over the past two days and had to warn friends after reading a news account about the spill.

"I gave them away to my neighbors and a cleaning lady," Corcoran said. "I didn't realize the waters were polluted. I called everybody up."

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